Saturday, September 27, 2008

Here we go again (for the very first time).

Leaves change color, a crisp breeze is in the air, kids go back to school, and Fox TV is already posting photos of American Idol’s stadium-filling auditions for season 8.  Cue “All My Life’s a Circle”.  Time to get this puppy underway.

I'm not a gossip columnist; I'm not a fanboy; I don’t actively seek media confirmation that Paula Abdul is drunk on camera or that Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest are actually flirting with each other as they cut to commercials.

I do, however, love American Idol.  It fulfills several entertainment desires at once for me:

1)  It’s a competition, and long but compelling one at that.   Why does Major League Baseball’s impossibly dense 164-game seven-month-long season hold people in such thrall?  At the beginning of the season (as Bill Murray said in one of his classic SNL short films), everyone’s batting 1.000 and every team is undefeated, and then the rivalries unfold, the players come into sharper focus, and finally the entire season comes down to the wire, and you just HAVE TO KNOW HOW IT TURNS OUT.  This last truth holds true, depending on your enjoyment and/or attachment, for any of the other major, minor, independent and college leagues in North America (the Mets’ single-A Brooklyn Cyclones have some die-hard freakin’ fans, and most of the players are straight out of high school), and I’d imagine this holds for other sports soap-operas beyond my U.S.-centric ken, as well as in a more protracted form like the World Cup or the Olympic Games.  This aching desire to know how things will turn out was also probably the main reason that the American launch of Survivor took off the way it did in summer 2000.  Being the first “reality competition” on American television probably didn’t hurt (Big Brother hadn't yet made it our way), but the true fascination with the show (and what sucked me into seasons 2 & 3) was less about learning about actual wilderness survival skills than about who would win the million dollars (and, given how vague the “game” was, how he or she would pull it off), and it took freakin’ 16 weeks to find out.  And there’s certainly more skill involved in winning an Idol season than in slogging through a month in the wilderness “surviving” based on how well you kiss up to people.

2)  It’s a singing contest.  People who dedicate themselves to a certain skill enjoy competing in that skill area, and enjoy living vicariously through those who compete.  Count me in.  And see also item 3:

3)  It puts the music first.  For better or for worse, this show is the closest that America has had to using mass media to promote musicianship since Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts.  From heightening the general public’s standard for quality singing, to promoting working songwriters (literally, in the case of Kara DioGuardi), to varying the repertoire to cover not just multiple decades but also multiple genres, to the dizzying array of music that the live band needs to put together on a week’s notice, this show puts the craft of music in the spotlight.   (I had reservations last season about oversights regarding transposing to contestants’ strengths, which would fall under musical director Rickey Minor’s responsibilities, but I’ll bring that up if it comes up again.)

“Wait,” many of my fellow music educators out there will ask, “isn't American Idol, and the music and singing involved in it, exactly the kind of society-destroying crap that music teachers should be steering their students away from, and in fact isn’t said crap the kind of crap that music teacher have to fight against to get students to listen to and learn from ‘real’ music?”

Short answer:  no.

Long answer:  I find in my Google-searching and browsing of music education boards that teachers who pooh-pooh Idol are pre-judging the show without watching it; they may see the promos highlighting “The Best of the Worst” and presume that the whole show is about ritual humiliation.  Then there’s the other extreme, where music and theater teachers are using the familiar judging format as a way to engage kids in constructive criticism, without regard for whether real auditions actually work that way, or whether the aforementioned ritual humiliation in the early rounds is for comic relief as opposed for constructive purposes.  And yes, granted there is a boatload of ritual humiliation in the first four weeks of the series, as they document the mass audition process and the judges and producers separate the promisingly-musical wheat from the do-you-seriously-not-know-how-awful-you-are chaff.  But once we get past that (and you have to admit, some of it is freakin’ hilarious), it’s down to brass vocal tacks.  Something about the televised nature of the competition raises the discernment of ordinary folks.  Some say that television isn’t real, in the sense that whoever is on TV needs to live up to heightened expectations, but is it so far off from the standard to which we hold Broadway performers, or classical pianists, or movie actors?  The kind of things that a singer will get cheered for at a high-school talent show will get the same singer booed off-stage on television, and will certainly lose them a gig or two on any stage.  Even to the untrained ear, it’s there subconsciously; anyone who’s ever seen a ballpark crowd react badly to a mediocre singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” can attest to that.  (Sanjaya Malakar’s improbable survival skills, and the camp-appeal attached to certain earnest but misguided YouTube phenomena, notwithstanding.)

Admittedly the show sometimes sells out, lest it look fuddy-duddy, or perhaps lose its cross-promotions.  Was anyone else disturbed by the contradiction last season, when Randy expressed annoyance with the quality of current pop songwriting, and then the following week Leona Lewis, Simon’s latest protegĂ©, was trotted out to sing her soon-to-be-hit “Bleeding Love,” one of the dullest songs of the year?  As with Liz Taylor’s makeup in Cleopatra or the folk-singing hippie commune in Star Trek, no show can ever seem to be truly independent of its time or place.  (Except maybe Mad Men, though I’m sure 20 years from now we might feel differently.)

Anyway, my thesis is that American Idol, for all of its gossip fodder and once-a-week horrific choreographed group numbers, is a great talent showcase, a suspenseful competition, and a four-month-long “teachable moment” that gets an unwarranted bad rap.  And this blog is an attempt to make use of the teachable moment.  Hope you enjoy it.


P.S.:  As Fox broadcasts specials leading up the formal premiere of season 8, I’ll be posting intermittently as I catch the shows.  When season 8 gets underway in January, I’ll be posting hopefully within an hour or two of each show.


P.P.S.:  I suppose that a future FAQ might be “Why, and not”  Or, “How did you know in advance that there’d be four judges?”  Well, I didn’t. I had been planning to purchase, or, or something similar, since the end of season 7, but kept putting it off.  On August 24, I emailed the owner of to see if he was interested in selling the name; he quoted me a price based on the income he was getting from advertising on his other sites, but I wasn't ready to lay down that big of a chunk of change.  Then, the very next day, on August 25, my Idol-based numerical world-view changed when I read on an AP feed that DioGuardi had been added to the  judge’s panel.  It was early in the morning, so I hopped onto to see if I could nab, but it was already taken, although the web site was idle.  (I can’t quite figure out what the site was intended for, something about a “celebration”; is it for discussing agriculture contests, like blue ribbons for biggest watermelon or Zuckerman’s famous pig?)  I snapped up, and then emailed the guy who owns about a sale; he responded that he wasn’t interested giving it up, and didn’t go into further detail.  Perhaps he was aware of the gold mine he sat upon... or maybe not.  I do feel bad for the guy who owned, though, as the value may have shrunk considerably, unless there’s someone out there who’s desperate to create a critique blog for Dancing With The Stars.  (Although I don’t usually watch that show, I admit I was glued to season 4 because I was compelled by the pairing of the competitive drive of Apolo Anton Ohno with the impossible hotness of Julianne Hough.)